Needles are the visible sign of a community under siege by addicts. (Black Press file)

Fraser Health lambasted by Chilliwack council for inaction on addictions

At the end of a tense meeting council voted unanimously to invite Fraser Health to public meeting

It’s time for Fraser Health to speak directly to Chilliwack about what is being done to counter out-of-control addiction issues in the streets, say city councillors.

The topic boiled over at the last city council meeting, as they discussed a staff recommendation to invite Fraser Health brass to a meeting in Chilliwack with council to address “gaps in service” with suggestions for improvements.

Coun. Jason Lum said he felt compelled to express very strong feelings on the matter.

“It’s been truly frustrating,” he told The Progress this week. “The community is beyond frustrated. As council, we have been taking the brunt of the anger and frustration brewing out there.”

There has been a lot of talk, but the response has been “totally inadequate” in relation to the enormity of the problem Chilliwack is facing.

So Lum won’t attend any future sitdowns with Fraser Health officials, and thinks they need to hear the voices of citizens.

“I have zero interest in any more closed-door meetings with Fraser Health at city hall,” said Coun. Lum, who said he tried that route already, and it has not netted results.

“It’s time for Fraser Health to come directly to the community to speak about the initiatives they have underway, what is planned, and how they will start alleviating public concerns,” argued Lum.

Council ended up passing a unanimous motion to that effect on July 18, inviting Fraser Health to Chilliwack to host a public meeting, answering the public’s questions on matters of addictions and detox.

Coun. Ken Popove said that he would be surprised if Fraser Health officials showed up for a public meeting to speak to citizens as they seem to prefer the closed-door approach.

“Last meeting was teleconferenced and we were talking about needles,” he said. “And that fell apart.”

But maybe the way to go is similar to the “Shame the johns” efforts, Coun. Popove said, maybe they should try a “Shame Fraser Health” approach.

Mayor Sharon Gaetz noted that “for whatever reason Chilliwack has fallen off the radar” of Fraser Health, and the stats show Chilliwack is not treated the same as other communities throughout the Lower Mainland in fighting the scourge of addiction, drug rehab, and homelessness.

“There is a definite inequity,” Gaetz said, whether it’s annual subsidies, or the number of outreach workers.

Coun. Chuck Stam, who is also chair of the Fraser Valley Regional Hospital District Board, said he 100 per cent supported the idea for a public meeting. He called efforts by Fraser Health to date “futile” and called for a better plan.

“Fraser Health needs to stop hiding in Surrey,” he said. “We need to own this issue.”

The report said Chilliwack is projected to have 21 deaths from drug overdoses in 2017, up from nine in 2016. Suspected overdoses are up as well.

Since medically supervised detox beds were closed in Chilliwack in 2009, only “daytox” has been available. So medical detox is “sorely lacking” in Chilliwack, Gaetz said.

Part of the problem is that the city has been consistently blamed for everything by the public.

“We don’t have the lion’s share of responsibility for this, and yet we’ve had to divert city resources from areas where they should be concentrated like on roads, public works, and parks,” Lum said after the meeting. “We are stuck responding to an issue that only seems to be getting worse.”

City employees have really stepped up.

“But they’ve been sworn at, and spit on while picking up garbage, feces, and needles. That’s not the job they signed up for.”

What Chilliwack needs is a fully funded ICM team, which stands for Intensive Case Management. An ICM team takes the multi-disciplinary approach to tackling addiction and housing needs. Each team would have five full-time clinical support workers, one peer support worker, administrative support, after-hours on-call support, a psychiatrist, a specialized addictions specialist and a physician.

Maple Ridge and Langley have an ICM team, and it’s coming to Abbotsford, but Chilliwack is not on the list for one.

“Other communities, even those with fewer homeless/addict numbers, are getting these ICM teams funded,” Coun. Lum said.

If Fraser Health declines the invitation to hold a public meeting for Chilliwack, they should at least agree to sit down with staff and council, said Mayor Gaetz.

“Our community has been held hostage, and it’s unfair,” said Coun. Chris Kloot, who said Fraser Health should be billed for the costs associated with picking up used needles.

Coun. Sam Waddington said a “compassionate, human approach” is required from Fraser Health, and “they need to step up and do their job.”

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